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Teaching Profession Opinion

Teaching the Hard History of Slavery

By Maureen Costello — February 26, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Note: Maureen Costello, a former history teacher, is the director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center that combats prejudice among our nation’s youth while promoting equality, inclusiveness, and equitable learning environments in the classroom. In this post, she shares strategies and resources to help educators address the difficult topic of slavery.

When I told my students at a private school for girls up north that Thomas Jefferson—who famously touted freedom and equality—owned slaves, and most likely had children with at least one of them, and that his mixed-race children grew up in slavery; their jaws dropped, they repeated my assertions in disbelief, and some even got angry.

They were also surprised when I told them that slavery thrived in all 13 colonies before the American Revolution, that it was legal in our own state—New York—until 1827, and that not every northerner was an abolitionist.

As a history teacher from 1979-1997, I believed in telling a complicated story, not a rosy one. I didn’t believe that teaching the “warts and all” would make any of my students—mostly white and privileged—ashamed to be American.

Rather than just breezing through slavery in a short lesson, I did my best to incorporate slavery—and the contributions that African-Americans have made to the history and culture of the United States—into all aspects of the American story.

These lessons should be taught all year round, not just during Black History Month.

This February, in classrooms across the country, students will meet black heroes and inventors, celebrate black music and poetry and—because this year’s theme is African-Americans in Times of War—they will find out about Buffalo Soldiers, the Tuskegee Airmen, and maybe the 761st Tank Battalion.

What they will not learn much about is American slavery. That’s hard history, not easy to teach, not easy to learn, and much easier to gloss over.

What typical American students will pick up about slavery is depressingly easy to predict. In kindergarten, they’ll briefly hear about the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman, a “black leader,” according to one popular lesson, who helped slaves escape. For most of them, this will be their first exposure to slavery, which is otherwise not in the curriculum for young children.

In some states, they’ll finally learn about slavery in 4th or 5th grade, and some teachers will unwisely stage a mock slave auction or a simulation of the Middle Passage so students can “understand” the horror.

Finally, some time between 7th grade and senior year of high school, they’ll take a U.S. history course and learn mainly about how slavery affected politics, led to sectionalism and, depending on where they live, may or may not have caused the Civil War. They’ll learn that either Lincoln ended it with the Emancipation Proclamation or Congress did with the 13th Amendment.

In short, they’ll learn little that is either meaningful or useful. We know this because we worked with an independent polling firm in early 2017 to survey U.S. high school seniors, and found that only 8 percent could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War, that two-thirds (68 percent) didn’t know it took a Constitutional amendment to formally end it, and fewer than one in four students (22 percent) could correctly identify how constitutional provisions privileged slaveholders.

What they haven’t learned is that racism and fear were carefully cultivated to defend an indefensible institution. And even when the institution was ended—at least in law—the implicit racist beliefs and systems of white supremacism lived on and were passed on to new generations, while the country professed equality for all.

In the last few years, we’ve seen that we are still a nation consumed with and divided by race. Why else was Black Lives Matter even necessary, and why was it immediately countered with All Lives Matter? Why else did mostly black NFL players take a knee, and why did many white fans decide to boycott games? Why Charlottesville and the rise of white nationalism?

It may be due to the history we choose to tell, and that which we choose to ignore. In the years that Jim Crow laws were being erected, so were hundreds of Confederate monuments portraying the defenders of slavery in heroic terms.

As Jeanne Theoharis writes in an excerpt from her upcoming book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, “What of the past is remembered, celebrated, and mourned is at the core of national identity—and the process of what is told and not told is often a function of power.”

Confronting the real history of American slavery is the start we need. It will enable us to know who we are as a nation, how we’ve been affected by the racial beliefs that were created and nurtured in defense of slavery, and perhaps allow us finally to see how we have all been—and continue to be—scarred.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Ibram X. Kendi, who studies the history of racism, explained why we avert our eyes: “When our reality is too ugly, we deny reality. It is too painful to look at. Reality is too hard to accept.”

Accept it we must, and the place to start is in our schools.

In an introduction to our report, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, Yale historian David Blight explains that, “The point is not to teach American history as a chronicle of shame and oppression. Far from it. The point is to tell American history as a story of real human beings, of power, of vast economic and geographical expansion, of great achievements as well as great dispossession, of human brutality and humane reform.”

American schoolchildren need to know that enslaved people built this nation, and not simply the South. King Cotton fueled American factories, built banking and insurance fortunes in the North, and touched virtually every business enterprise in the United States during the early 19th century Industrial Revolution. King Cotton provided the capital that funded canals, railroads, and factories. And King Cotton was the product of enslaved labor.

American schoolchildren also need to understand that slavery gave birth to a deep and pervasive racism that didn’t end with the 13th Amendment or even with the civil rights movement.

One of the most common questions students ask when they finally learn about slavery is, “How could people do that?”

Sadly, we rarely answer by talking about the power of racist ideology. I didn’t answer that question well when I taught, and I know few teachers who can answer it well today.

In preparation for publishing our Teaching Hard History report (and the accompanying teaching tools), we had the privilege of speaking to four teachers who don’t shy away from their students’ difficult questions. When asked for their teaching advice, one strong recommendation to emerge from this group was to make connections to contemporary global issues like child labor and modern-day slavery. These connections, said one middle school teacher, help students put the question “How could people do that?” into context by pointing out that, even now, people will exploit each other for profit and use socially constructed hierarchies to justify it. (Students may be surprised to find that they benefit from some of these practices in their daily lives.) Skilled educators can also point to the efforts of modern-day abolitionists and help young people see that they, too, have the opportunity to resist and change systems of oppression that enslave people today.

These teachers also agreed that helping students understand the origins of racial injustice was not only the most important goal of teaching hard history, but also the most challenging. Because, as Theoharis writes, “Racial injustice is America’s original sin and deepest silence.”

It’s long past time to break that silence.

Connect with Marueen, Teaching Tolerance, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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